Pakistan and Afghanistan’s mutual distrust can only help the Taliban’s ongoing offensive.
On April 19, Tuesday, Kabul saw its worst terror attack. By the time the dust had settled on the explosions and gunfire stopped, 64 people were dead and about 300 injured. A week before the attack a Taliban statement had announced the start of their ‘spring offensive’.
Six days after the attack Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a speech to Parliament, blasted Pakistan for waging proxy war against Afghanistan. Ghani said that Kabul didn’t intend to pursue peace talks with the Taliban and Pakistan must instead now focus on cleansing its soil of Taliban sanctuaries. Ghani also indicated that Kabul would go to the U.N. Security Council to get Islamabad isolated and punished for the latter’s Afghan policy. He also announced an end of amnesty for the Taliban and said captured Taliban fighters will now be executed.
Ghani’s harsh comments came a day ahead of the senior officials’ meeting at the Heart of Asia conference in New Delhi. The HoA-Istanbul Process, begun in 2011, seeks to put Afghanistan’s stability, economy and reconstruction at the heart of security in this region and beyond. It has 14 HoA countries, 17 supporting countries and 11 regional and international organizations.
At the 5th ministerial HoA conference in Islamabad in December 2015, a separate mechanism, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group including Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, was created to facilitate talks between Kabul and the Taliban. The QCG has had four meetings so far, the last on Feb. 23 this year in Kabul.
There was much optimism at that point and sources in Islamabad indicated that there was a likelihood of direct talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government by Feb. 26. That didn’t happen. Later, efforts were made to get the ball rolling sometime in March. That didn’t happen, either.
Meanwhile, Taliban activity in Afghanistan continued unabated with the Afghan National Security Forces taking losses on the ground and Taliban testing the waters in various velayats (provinces) and their districts, especially Helmand, and even close to Kabul.
On the ground, while Taliban groups have not been able to capture any major urban center, they control large swathes of the countryside and are not losing. The ANSF have taken heavy casualties with nearly 5,500 dead and many more injured. Desertions are common and morale, for the most part, is very low. ANSF soldiers are also facing problems with disbursement of salaries, maintenance of equipment and other logistics. The Afghan economy, heavily dependent on foreign aid and grants, is teetering. The elites have stashed away their wealth and can escape to the Gulf and other parts of the world at a short notice. Meanwhile, Afghans leaving the country have become the second largest such group after the Syrians.
None of this bodes well for Afghanistan and, by extension, for Pakistan.
Pakistan, which has had some success against its own terrorist groups, is not out of the woods. Despite the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan and intelligence operations in the cities, Pakistan has seen spectacular attacks on soft targets since December 16, 2014. The operation in North Waziristan has also pushed the Pakistani Taliban into Afghan territories from where they plan and execute attacks inside Pakistan.
This has become a revolving door: Afghan Taliban crossing over into Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban crossing over into Afghanistan. Not that this is new. When Pakistan was operating in South Waziristan, NATO-ISAF troops were operating in the south and southwest of Afghanistan. There was no coordination between the two sides. Then Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani made clear, first to Gen. McChrystal and later to Gen. Petraeus that the policy won’t work but couldn’t convince them.
Now, of course, the ANSF don’t have the capacity to deploy troops to block Taliban fighters leaving Pakistan’s tribal agencies.
The blame game, just like before, continues.
To complicate matters, a 3-member delegation of Afghan Taliban arrived in Pakistan from Doha on April 28. The Taliban spokesperson in Doha was reported as saying that the delegation will hold talks on a wide range of issues, “including refugees’ matters, problems in Helmand, Nangarhar and Paktia provinces of Afghanistan, and seeking an end to restrictions on the movement of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar.” It was not clear who the delegation will talk to since Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Chaudhry, said he had no information on the group’s arrival in Pakistan. Chaudhry is also reported to have said that the efforts of the QCG hadn’t been fruitful but that the group would continue with its work.
Lately, Moscow has shown interest in getting into the fray, though its representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has dismissed the QCG framework, indicating that Moscow was ready to develop a new mechanism for peace talks.
None of this seems encouraging. Pakistan has not been able to influence the Afghan Taliban. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan, speaking at IISS, London, on April 24 made clear that the Taliban are not “influenceable” and Pakistan’s influence on them “is overrated.”
The problem with this approach is that Pakistan, for the past decade, had been trying to get a seat at the high table, arguing that it had the key to the resolution. Now that it is being asked to do it, Islamabad says it cannot go beyond facilitating the talks. Last year, during his U.S. visit, the prime minister while speaking at the United States Institute of Peace said that Pakistan cannot be asked to get the Taliban to talk and also to use force against them. That’s correct but only, to quote Mr. Salter from Scoop, “up to a point.” Ghani wanted violence to come down—at least as far as attacks in Kabul were concerned. That hasn’t happened. It was Pakistan’s job to do something about that. It couldn’t. Ghani, as also others, thinks Pakistan doesn’t want to.
On Kabul’s side, nothing is being done, except one operation back in 2015, to tackle the Pakistani Taliban sitting pretty in Afghanistan. Also, the ANSF, as noted before, have largely failed to control territory. The Taliban feel that they don’t really need to talk at this point. They also feel that Pakistan can pressure them only put to a point. Result: continued attacks and mistrust.
The QCG might continue but in reality it is all but finished. Ditto for the HoA-Istanbul Process. Ghani’s reach-out to Pakistan has also run its course. What we shall witness now will be nothing more than pro forma.
In a previous piece I had noted that if Pakistan couldn’t ensure a talks opening before the snows melt, the jig will be up. Well, the jig is all but up.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.